Where Will This Change Take Us?
“This is what our democracy stands for, the smooth transition of power.” Obama’s words came in the deliberate, stately cadence that we’ve all heard so many times over the last eight years. “I’ve asked my team to do everything possible to ensure that the new President elect can hit the ground running” he said. “George Bush’s team did that for us when we took office.”
We are going to miss this intelligent, civilized man and his family. Riding waves of populist anger, the quintessential infotainment tongue surfer is our next President. And where will this take us all?
As a student and practitioner of change, I hold a few assumptions as I think about all this.
- Evolution and progress are not inevitable, in fact devolution is quite possible and a frequent companion of declining organizations (and empires).
- Change is not the big challenge – transitions are. My colleague Gisela Wendling, who has studied change in indigenous cultures, knows that it’s the in-between time—the liminal time, the transition time—that is the challenge. Here humans experience uncertainty, ambiguity, loss of identify, and perhaps a near-death feeling.
- Generative images play a role. In the in-between times we are attracted to symbols and images that give us some certainty—like life buoys in a sea. What are the symbols being offered? A raised arm (Hitler)? A wall (Stalin) ? A tall tower (Ayn Rand)?
- In behavior change, pushing guarantees resistance. Hard versus hard almost guarantees the system will lose. Firm and friendly works. Firm on the issues; friendly and respectful to people. (Read Getting to Yes).
- In order to change, people need a new story. It has to make a case for “why,” hold out a vision of “what” to do, and have a plausible approach to “how.” I think plausible is the challenging part.
- Setbacks can make the truly committed stronger. There is something about failure and defeat that mobilizes people who are deeply committed. Think Gandhi. Think King.
- In the face of complexity, people seek simplicity. Have you ever noticed how big, snarly agenda items get sidetracked as groups focus on some small puzzle? At one time it was called bumper sticker thinking. Now it’s called tweeting.
- In the crucible of change, insight comes unpredictably, but often does come. It is the hero’s journey into the wilderness, where the gift that will save the village is delivered as a surprise. It’s not the stuff of plans, but of living through the heat of it all with eyes open for the truly new.
So we are entering a time of real change. It’s easy to make grand projections based on what we already know. In talking about students in her high school discussing the election, my wife’s daughter says they fall into three camps. One is the loudly argumentative, certain-they-are-right Clinton supporters. Another is the “whatever” camp. A third are quiet Trump supporters who don’t say much. Not much chance to have real dialogue she says.
Yet on the radio I hear about a high school history teacher who had his students break into groups of four and generate 10 questions about the campaign. After sorting , these questions would be the curriculum for the next few weeks. Here, the Trump kids found more safety and started talking.
As stirred up as everyone is about the election, and as wonderful it is to trump and re-trump each other with our latest opinions, I think that politics is just the glittering surf on a deeper ocean of change.
- The planet is heating up with deep coastal, crop, species, and livability compromises.
- The south is coming north for this very reason.
- Technology and the financial cybernauts are steadily and seemingly irrevocably spreading their “efficiencies” deep into the workforce, and at the same time finding politics and borders irrelevant to the great adventure of making lots and lots of money. (Where did Star Trek get the idea of the Borg anyway?)
- McNamara’s wonderful idea of starting an arms industry has sourced a juggernaut that rises above nations. Why are the open conflicts in so many of the young countries? Why are so many of the arms sellers in old countries?
- The Internet and social media spawn crisis and opportunity in equal, viral measure. Terrorism relies on it. Science relies on it. Business and a free agent economy rely on it. Infotainment news relies on it. But do we really know the true cost? Just as the coal industry has externalized its true cost onto the general environment, social media may be externalizing its true cost onto the lives of the young.
These are mind-numbing kinds of issues. They require systems thinking to even comprehend. They are functions of long cycles that we don’t necessarily sense directly. But they are compounding to create a crucible for global change.
I don’t have answers, but I do have a response. It is to work even harder on helping people understand change; to work collaboratively on responding to change; and to reach out and connect with others who are willing to work collaboratively on change. For change we must. and change we will. Can it be artful? Can it be fun? Can it be truly nurturing to the human soul? Can it help the people who are being left out? These are the questions that ring for me this second day after the day that everything seemed to change.